How Disney World Is Destroying Its Reputation, Chasing Away Loyal Repeat Customers, and Will Lose Almost $1 Billion a Year in Revenue As a Result
- The Real Reason Attendance is Down – and Will Continue to Decline
- Yikes! Is Disney World Now Being Run By Ex-Airline Executives?
- The Alienation of Customers
- Here’s my personal experience with the impact of the recent (disastrous!) changes.
- How much extra do these changes cost the average family traveling to Disney World and staying on-site?
- How much do these changes cost the day guest not staying on-site?
- But wait – I’ve been reading that Disney made some recent improvements to improve the guest experience. Doesn’t this make up for the changes?
- Okay, but don’t all the extra revenue these changes generate make it worth the hit to customer satisfaction?
- Now Let’s Look at How Disney will lose almost $1 Billion in annual revenue over time
- For those of you who like details, here’s how I came up with the lost revenue figure
- Okay Big Mouth, So How Does Disney Get This $1 Billion in Revenue Back?
- Last Word
This is a bold statement, but hear me out. If you read this entire post, I think you will agree with me.
And if you’ve been a repeat guest for many years, you’ll really agree with me!
If you’ve read any recent news about Disney World, you’ve seen among other things that while revenue is up (most likely due to price increases and charging for things that were previously free), attendance is down.
In this post, I’m going to explain why I think attendance is down (HINT: it isn’t what Disney says in their press releases!), the long-term effects of their recent changes, and why my family will not be returning. You can hopefully then make a better decision as to if you think Disney World is worth visiting (or visiting again for you repeat guests).
Oh, you’ll read lots of excuses for the drop in attendance: the political battle with Governor DeSantis, unusual weather in 2023, Universal taking business away, higher ticket prices, and growing frustration with the complexity of planning a trip.
The Real Reason Attendance is Down – and Will Continue to Decline
Probably all of these contribute in some way to the attendance decline. However, my contention is that a significant – and growing – reason is Disney has alienated its customer base with changes made over the past two-plus years. Specifically, these are the changes to which I’m referring:
- The elimination of luggage handling – In June, 2020
- The elimination of resort airport check-in – In June 2020
- The elimination of free Magic Bands – in Dec, 2020
- The elimination of Fast Passes – Sept, 2021
- The implementation of the universally despised paid Genie+ service – Dec 2021
- The elimination of the free Magical Express – On Jan, 2022
Yikes! Is Disney World Now Being Run By Ex-Airline Executives?
You might think so, as they are running the play book created by the airlines back in 2008.
Remember when the airlines first eliminated free luggage and started charging for it? Then they eliminated free in-flight meals. Then they starting charging you for the privilege of selecting your seat. Then they decreased the legroom.
The difference between the airlines and Disney, is that the airlines made these changes as a matter of survival. Customers were demanding low airfares and these changes were the only way to provide that and still make enough money to stay in business. Airline customers are apparently willing to put up with a poorer flying experience for lower prices.
Yes, you’re paying for things that used to be free when you fly, but on the other hand airfares have actually decreased by 4% in those 15 years. This is an inflation rate of -.27%, compared with the overall inflation rate of +2.33% during those 15 years.
I’m not here to defend the airlines, but at least they delivered on lower flight fares to compensate for the new charges.
Disney World, on the other hand, not only started charging for things previously included for free, but increased their prices at the same time. You’re paying more for less, and the less is inferior!
Let’s take a typical room at a moderate resort. In 2019, prior to the changes, a standard room at the Caribbean Beach Resort in November would cost you $205 per night. In 2023, that same room was $328, an increase of 54%! And this during the period when free services were either being eliminated or replaced with inferior paid services.
What this means is that the airlines should be hiring Disney Executives!
The Alienation of Customers
Repeat customers who stay on-site are being alienated by the elimination of most of the advantages of staying on-site. The “Disney Bubble” is gone and Disney no longer takes care of you when you stay on site.
Day guests (those not staying on-site), are being alienated by both the extra cost and the frustration of using the Genie+ service, with the additional stress it places on their day.
These negative changes are driving away repeat guests, as well as ensuring that a certain percentage of first-time guests will never return. I believe this downward trend in attendance has just begun and will eventually reach a point where it threatens Disney World’s existence.
70% of Disney World visitors are repeat visitors (Disney’s figure, not mine). Consequently, this is where their long-term attendance is most at risk. With the changes, Disney is betting that the increased revenue will offset any repeat guests they lose, or that they will be able attract more first time visitors each year to make up the difference.
This is a bet that, in my opinion, Disney will lose. I do not believe they will be able to attract enough additional first time visitors to offset the loss of repeat guests.
This makes it particularly puzzling to me as to why they would make the exact changes that practically guarantee that the percentage of repeat visitors, especially those that stay on-site, will continue to decrease over time. This is a textbook example of how screwing your customers with extra charges to shore up short-term results will hurt you in the long term.
Later on, I’ll explain how Disney can reverse the inevitable decline in attendance and revenue, although I suspect you already know!
Here’s my personal experience with the impact of the recent (disastrous!) changes.
My family has been the quintessential definition of loyal, repeat customers of Disney World.
We’ve been there 11 times over the years, even though we live in the Seattle area – which is about as far away as you can get in the continental United States. We stayed on-site at a Disney hotel every time.
However, our loyalty – and our repeat business – ended in May of 2023, when we made our last trip to Disney World.
And this is why.
How An On-Site Visit to Disney World Used to Be
I’ll describe what our Disney World trip in 2018 was like, before the recent changes, when staying at a Disney hotel meant you were in the Disney “bubble”.
Before Our Trip
Once we made our resort reservation (about 12 months ahead of time), we received an email from Disney explaining that our luggage tags would soon be sent, with a link to make our Magical Express reservation and to pick the colors we wanted for our Magic Bands, which would also soon be sent. All included with our hotel reservation.
For dining reservations, since we were staying on site, we could make them six months in advance, which we did. We could also make free Fast Pass ride reservations 60 days in advance, which we also did.
Once We Arrived in Orlando
When we arrived at the airport, all we had to do was walk to the Magical Express departure area. Disney picked up our luggage and brought it to the bus.
When we arrived at the Disney hotel (in our case, Coronado Springs, one of the moderate resorts), our luggage was taken off the bus and brought to our room. All we had to do was go straight to the parks, as we had already checked in online.
At the Parks
Each day, we used our Fast Pass reservations for the best rides. It was possible to make additional Fast Pass reservations, but they booked up pretty fast so we didn’t bother. For the five days we were there, we were able to do all the major rides with Fast Passes and we just waited for the lines to go down each day for others.
The only thing we needed our cell phones for was to check the ride wait times, which we occasionally did.
We chose our Fast Passes for each day so that either they were for rides that were close together, or there was enough time in between each Fast Pass that we didn’t have to rush. While each day was certainly busy, we did not feel rushed or stressed out.
At Check-Out Day
On the day we checked out of the hotel, we simply went to the airport check-in desk at the hotel, where they checked us into our flight, took our luggage, and printed our boarding passes. We then got on the Magical Express bus to the airport.
When we arrived at the airport, all we had to do was go to our departure gate.
And this was what it meant when you were in the Disney bubble! Disney took care of us from the start to the end of our vacation. Planning was simple and straightforward, making for a relaxing and relatively stress free visit.
This is exactly why we were loyal, repeat customers.
That was 2018. Now let’s Look at our May 2023 trip.
- No more luggage handling. We had to do it ourselves, just like going anywhere else.
- No more free Magic Bands. If you want one now you have to buy it, and we like them so we did.
- No more Magical Express. We had to arrange and pay for bus transportation with Mears. They were the company Disney contracted with to provide the Magical Express, but it’s now a far inferior experience since they don’t use the Disney name anymore.
- No more free Fast Passes. Since we wanted short lines on at least some of the main attractions (which Fast Pass gave you for free), we had to purchase the new Genie+ service, at a variable cost of $20 to $25 per person per day.
- On check-out day, we had to get to the airport earlier to check in our luggage.
Unlike our 2018 vacation, this time we had to make all advance arrangements ourselves, pay for inferior replacements for things that used to be free, as well as try to learn the confusing and convoluted Genie+ application in advance of our trip.
The Genie+ Experience
Okay, let’s talk about the Genie+ experience now.
I’m assuming they named this service Genie because…poof! Just like magic it made the Disney World experience a convoluted mess of confusion and stress. Well, at least you have to pay for it!
Not only is it expensive, but it’s confusing and full of bugs. Worse yet, you can’t reserve rides in advance. We had to be up and on our cell phone at 7:00 am each morning, because that’s when ride reservations open up. Once in the parks, we had to spend all day on the phone making additional reservations because you can only make them for that day, and only one at a time.
The best rides book up in the first few minutes, so if you’re not ready to hit that enter key right at 7 am, you’ll be spending your time on Dumbo and It’s a Small World.
Once in the park, we spent most of our time crisscrossing the park, as each additional ride booked throughout the day was frequently far away because you have to take whatever is available when it was available.
In other words, we now were not only paying for something that used to be free, but the paid version was far worse. Genie+ is error-prone and confusing as hell to learn and use.
And get this: even though you paid for Genie+, THE BEST RIDES IN EACH PARK AREN’T ON IT! You have to pay extra for what they call “Lightening Lanes” for the newest and most popular rides in each park, if you want to avoid hours-long lines.
That’s right – Disney decided it was a good idea to charge you twice for what used to be free with Fast Passes.
In addition, some rides have a ‘virtual queue’ (another reason you’ll be on your cell phone all day) instead of a standby line, which frequently book up almost immediately when available. The only way to avoid this is by purchasing a Lightening Lane.
Of course, you don’t have to buy Genie+ or Lightening Lanes. You can use the standby lines if there is one. But once you see how long they are (due to people who bought Genie+ and/or Lightening Lanes), you’ll probably cave in and buy just like we did. The alternative is to spend many extra hours each day standing in line.
Planning for this Disney World trip was stressful, confusing, and a lot of extra work and expense.
We ended up each day exhausted from running around to get on rides with Genie+ and rarely had time to simply relax and sight see.
And did I mention the stress of seeing if your phone battery will run down, leaving you with no way to access what you paid for? You’d better buy some extra battery packs!
When we finally did leave, we had to drag our luggage to the transportation we now paid for to take us back to the airport, and then hassle with checking in our luggage.
The bottom line here is there is very little advantage now to staying on site. Disney took most of it away and now charges for inferior replacements that result in an extremely stressful vacation.
If you want to see how Disney itself sang the advantages of staying on site back in the day, check this out. This is one of the rare cases where a commercial was 100% accurate – this really was what it was like to stay in a Disney world hotel just a few years ago.
How much extra do these changes cost the average family traveling to Disney World and staying on-site?
Let’s assume the average family traveling to Disney World is composed of four people: two adults and two children. Disney says it’s 3.2 but we rounded up to four, which makes our calculations more conservative.
We’ll also use an average on-site stay of five nights, another figure I got from Disney.
We’ll make the following trip cost assumptions, which are based on the available information I could find about Disney World.
- Average room cost per night, averaging value, moderate and deluxe resorts: $400
- Average park ticket cost per person per night: $125 (Disney says the average is $134 but I wanted to be conservative)
- Average food cost per person per day: $100 (this is based on my personal experience, but we do use table service a lot)
TOTAL COST (EXCLUDING AIRFARE) FOR FIVE NIGHTS BEFORE ALL THE TAKEAWAYS: $6,500.
When Disney burst the bubble and started charging for things previously free when you stayed on-site, here’s the added cost for our family of four:
- Airport transportation by Mears bus: $118 ($32 for adult, $27 for child)
- Genie+ at $20 average per day: $400
- Lightening Lane passes (one per person per day at $15 (You have to include these to make things equal to what you used to get with Fast Pass): $300
- Magic Bands at $40 each: $200 (Disney says you can get them for $20 but these weren’t available, so we paid $40. The fancier ones are $50)
TOTAL ADDITIONAL COST FOR THINGS PREVIOUSLY FREE: $1,018 – 15% more on top of price increases every year for everything else.
And this, my friends, is why we are no longer loyal, repeat customers of Disney World. There is now little advantage to staying on-site, you pay more and get less, and the park experience with Genie+ is simply too stressful.
How much do these changes cost the day guest not staying on-site?
First, let’s assume it costs the average day guest $250 for a day at Disney World:
- One day ticket cost (per Disney) $109 – $159, so here I use Disney’s average of $134 because single day tickets are more expensive.
- Food cost is $100 (based my experience – your mileage may vary).
- Incidentals $6 (gifts, treats, the kids have to have something, right?)
This gives a one day cost for a family of four of $1,000. I know…shocking, right?
Since they don’t stay on-site, the elimination of things like the Magical Express, luggage handling, resort airport check-in, etc, don’t affect them.
However, the replacement of the free Fast Pass system with the paid Genie+ certainly does!
With Fast Pass, everyone purchasing a park ticket got three free fast passes per day. This meant everyone had the chance to avoid long lines for at least three rides.
With Genie+, you have to pay for this privilege.
And even if you do pay, you’ll have to pay extra for lightning lanes for those rides that are not included in Genie+. And believe me, you’ll want to buy at least one of these to avoid listening to your kids complain for two hours while standing in line.
Disney says Genie+ averages $20 per day but we usually had to pay $25 or more, so a family of four will pay an extra $100 for their day at Disney World. In addition, many people will buy at least one Lightening Lane for $15 per person, so that’s an extra $60 for the day.
This gives a total of $160 per day – an extra 16% – in added expense for a day guest family due to the elimination of Fast Passes.
And remember, buying and using Genie+ every day adds immensely to the stress of your park visit.
Of course, you can avoid this expense entirely if you choose to always use the standby lines That is, if you are willing to add an extra five or six hours of waiting time to your day. Only you can decide if that’s worth $160.
Is it any wonder why a growing number of first-time-day guests will never return?
But wait – I’ve been reading that Disney made some recent improvements to improve the guest experience. Doesn’t this make up for the changes?
Fair enough, let’s look at the five “improvements” they’ve recently announced.
Parking fees for hotel guests have been eliminated. Hooray!
But did you know that parking was always free until 2018 when they started charging? So all they did here was reinstate something that previously was already free.
The Dining Plan will be offered starting in 2024. Disney takes care of its guests, right?
Wrong. This too simply reinstates something previously taken away.
Early Theme Park Entry and Extended Evening Hours will remain through 2024. One more indication that Disney is improving your experience!
These were just replacements for previous extended hours. Plus, Extended Evening Hours are only for guests in Deluxe resorts, so this is actually not as good as the ones they replaced.
The park reservation system ends in 2024. Now you can park hop more easily!
Once again, this simply restores what was taken away. It’s not a new benefit.
Advance ride reservations are coming in 2024 for Genie+ and Lightening Lanes.
Yes, this was a major complaint about Genie+. But the previous (free!) Fast Pass system always allowed advance ride reservations and Disney replaced that with a far inferior paid service that they are only now making a small step to improve.
These improvements, while needed, do nothing to restore the Disney bubble, have no impact on the paid services that used to be free, nor do they correct the awful experience of Genie+.
They offer no new incentive for staying on-site, and do nothing to address overall customer frustration and dissatisfaction with the paid versions of things that used to be free.
Disney must think their guests are really stupid.
Okay, but don’t all the extra revenue these changes generate make it worth the hit to customer satisfaction?
I’m sure Disney thinks so. Let’s first take a look at the extra revenue they get from these customer-unfriendly changes.
According to my calculations, there are four areas of additional revenue for Disney as a result of these disastrous changes. Here’s an estimation of the revenue for each.
Genie+: $580 million
Calculated as follows:
- Annual attendance is 58 million guests
- Disney estimates that 50% are buying Genie+
- Disney says the average cost is $20, so 50% of 58 million is 29 million, multiplied by $20 is $580 million.
Lightening Lanes: $58 million
I admit this is pretty much a wild guess on my part. I simply assumed that this revenue may be about 10% of Genie+. I could be way off.
Magic Bands: $87 million
This too is a guess. Based on what I saw on our 2023 trip, I estimate that about 25% of the people had Magic Bands. At what Disney says is a $20 cost, 25% of 58 million visitors times $20 equals $290 million. But, since Disney says 70% of its guests are repeat guests, we have to assume that they already have Magic Bands, so that additional revenue is only 30% of the $290 million, or $87 million.
TOTAL ANNUAL REVENUE FOR CHANGES: $725 MILLION
So, here is what I think Disney needs to ask itself: Is $725 million per year in additional revenue worth the hit that Disney is taking to its reputation, and, just as important, will these changes result in increasingly lower future attendance – and revenue – due to the alienation of loyal and repeat customers?
These two questions are actually related. The hit to Disney’s reputation is going to directly lead to decreased attendance over time and a resulting loss of revenue.
And I believe this loss of revenue is going to far exceed the revenue Disney is getting from these ill-conceived changes.
Now Let’s Look at How Disney will lose almost $1 Billion in annual revenue over time
I’ve already estimated the annual revenue from these changes at about $725 million, so now let’s look at what I project their revenue losses will be as a result of these changes.
Statistics that I used
Some of the numbers I used in my calculations came from Disney itself, some came from financial estimates from the big brokerage houses, and some I estimated based on my research.
Here’s what I based my calculations on:
- Annual Disney World attendance is 58 million.
- Assuming an average family of four, this means 14.5 million families visit annually.
- 70% of visitors (Disney’s number), or 10.15 million families, are repeat guests, leaving 4.35 million families annually as first-time visitors.
- Of these 4.35 million first-time guests, 70% will therefore also presumably become repeat guests
- Disney World has 28,097 rooms in all (Disney-owned only) hotels combined.
- An 85% occupancy rate gives 23,882 occupied rooms on average (One of Disney’s figures is 82%, but here too I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt).
- Multiply the 23,882 rooms times four people in each, that gives 95,928 people per day staying at resorts, or about 35 million per year. This means 60% of all guests in Disney World are staying at a Disney Resort.
- The average family of four, staying on site, spends $6,500 for the average 5-day trip. Disney says that repeat guests come every two to four years, so using three as an average means that a lost repeat customer costs $2,166 annually ($6,500 divided by three).
- That average family of four not staying on-site spends $1,000 for a day ($250 per person, including tickets, food, gifts, and incidentals).
- Due to the increased cost, elimination of most on-site benefits, and the poor park experience created by these changes, 10% of every family visiting the park will decide not to return, regardless of whether they were a day-only guest or an on-site guest.
Yes, the 10% figure is an estimate on my part and based on some admittedly subjective research.
I went to one of the most popular Disney forums and read the comments on a post that discussed the negative changes made over the past two-plus years. Of the first 100 comments, 26 said they would not return to Disney World because of these changes. See this link: https://www.disneytouristblog.com/disney-world-ending-magical-express-adding-early-entry/
This is a small sample, admittedly, but I’m pretty sure that other posts about these changes would give a similar result. So, allowing for the fact that probably half of these 26 people were just blowing off steam and still might return, that’s still 13%. I believe this supports the use of 10%, which may even be conservative.
See for yourself. Go to the following websites and read the comments on posts about Genie+, or the elimination of the Magical Express: Disneytouristblog.com, Allears.net, Disneyfoodblog.com, Thedisneyblog.com. There are many others, but these are some of the big ones. You’ll be shocked at how much these changes are hated by previously loyal Disney fans.
Calculating the lost revenue
I will use a greatly simplified approach. You could dig into statistics in a very granular way and perhaps fine-tune the calculations, but at a high level I believe they are generally valid.
Lost revenue due to these changes will come primarily from the 10% of guests who will either stop being repeat guests or will not become one if they are first-time guests.
The total gross annual lost revenue is $1.760 billion. Subtracting the $725 million in revenue that Disney gained by the changes, gives a net lost annual revenue of:
To this, you have to add the damage to Disney’s reputation, which is impossible to calculate but has to be substantial.
For those of you who like details, here’s how I came up with the lost revenue figure
For the 10.15 million annual families that are currently repeat guests (70% of all 14.5 million families)
- 60%, or 6,090,000 are staying on site. Take 10% who will no longer return, times $2,166 of annual lost revenue, which equals $1.32 billion.
- For the other 40%, 4,350,000 families, that are day-only guests, take 10%, times $1,000 in lost annual revenue, which equals $435 million.
TOTAL LOST REVENUE: $1.32 BILLION PLUS $435 MILLION = $1.76 BILLION
And this doesn’t even include the 30% of families that are not repeat guests. You have to assume that a certain percentage of these that would otherwise become repeat guests will now choose not to because of the extra expense and stressful experience.
Okay Big Mouth, So How Does Disney Get This $1 Billion in Revenue Back?
Isn’t it obvious? Reverse the customer-killing changes!
Reinstate the Magical Express with free luggage handling and resort check-in, provide free magic bands again, Dump Genie+ and reinstate the free Fast Pass system (I’m sure the computer code still exists).
Actually, I believe Disney could charge for the Magical Express, as well as for Fast Passes (assuming old system was used) and not get as much blow back as they are for eliminating these things in the first place. Being back in the Disney bubble would be worth it.
My numbers may be off, even perhaps way off, but there is no denying the fact that these changes WILL result in a certain percentage of guests who will not return.
Even if that percentage is only one percent instead of ten (highly unlikely), it will be a $100 million annual loss in revenue.
But what if the lost repeat guests are 15%? Or 20%? The decline in revenue would then be staggering.
Even without the lost revenue, the loss of goodwill for Disney has been massive. You only have to look at the various online Disney forums to realize that there is a growing sense that Disney has decided to abandon its reputation for treating its visitors as guests and instead has decided to treat them as ATMs.
Is Disney World in trouble right now?
I think there is still enough pent-up demand from the pandemic to keep attendance going for a while. However, they will have to increasingly depend on first-time visitors as the percentage of repeat customers falls and this will eventually be unsustainable.
Are you listening Disney? Or is it true that you no longer care?
As for my family, as I’m sure is true for an increasing number of families going forward, until and unless Disney restores the “bubble” it’s goodbye Disney World and hello Universal Studios!